Female Filmmakers in Focus: ‘Enemies of the State’ Director Sonia Kennebeck Talks About Her New Movie
This week director Sonia Kennebeck discusses her newest documentary ‘Enemies of the State’ and recommends another documentary by Tatiana Huezo.
Enemies of the State - directed by Sonia Kennebeck
Born in Malacca, Malaysia, director Sonia Kennebeck grew up in Germany and now resides in New York City. After receiving a master’s degree in international affairs from American University, she began an internship at NBC just days before 9/11.
Since then, she has worked as an independent documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist, directing and producing eight television documentaries and more than 50 investigative reports.
Her debut feature documentary, 2016’s National Bird, was described by Filmmaker Magazine as, “an artful, investigative look at the myriad impacts of America’s use of drone warfare.” Her most recent documentary, ‘Enemies of the State’ was executive produced by Errol Morris and dives into the twisted story of Matt DeHart, a whistleblower who was targeted by the United States government after claiming to have documents alleging misconduct by the CIA.
What Kennebeck and her crew find during their investigation proves the age-old adage that truth is stranger than fiction, and shows once again that in real life, ambiguity reigns.
We sat down with director Sonia Kennebeck to talk about her new movie.
Moviefone: How did you first come across Matt DeHart’s story?
Sonia Kennebeck: I’ve known about the Matt DeHart story for a very long time. I was in the midst of working on my previous documentary, ‘National Bird’ about the U.S. drone war, and I was interviewing drone whistleblowers at the time and one of my sources had told me about Matt DeHart regarding his work with drones. I started looking into the story. I believe at that time the family were still in Canada. I remember I was talking to my producing partner about his case, and we decided his case was too complex to include him in a film about drones. I started reading some of the court documents and did some research and it fascinated me, but I saw that it was like a rabbit hole in a rabbit hole, so I put it on a stack of stories I wanted to circle back to later. I never forgot about it because of all the twists and turns of the story, so after ‘National Bird’ was out I started diving back into it and I met with Matt DeHart’s parents, and they showed me the documents about how he’d received Thorazine in jail and the FBI interrogation. That’s where I really dove deep into it with my team. It had so many interesting and important elements we wanted to research.
MF: I loved the quote, “Matt grew up on the internet. We didn’t”. What do you think is the greatest impact of the internet on Millennials and Gen Z generations?
Kennebeck: This film for me, it’s not just about one individual story. It has all these deep layers and one of them is the time that we live in and how fast information spreads and gets repeated over the internet and in articles. It just has such a fast pace that I actually think it’s really hard for us as humans in general, be it older or younger, to process information that quickly. Then, of course, narratives get a life of their own over the internet. It signifies many things. How our lives have changed through communication over the internet with people who we don’t know. Building up friendships and very close, intimate connections with people over the internet and over social media. The way that narratives and information spread, not just locally, but worldwide. Matt DeHart’s story was covered worldwide. I think the way that we trust certain information that we read, I think the internet plays a part in how narratives are made into black and white and simplified, when human behaviors, human existence, and a lot of stories are more complex than they might seem on the surface when you read a tweet or one article.
MF: Another quote I thought was fascinating is when his mother says, “Truth doesn’t matter.” The documentary as it goes forward unveils a lot of unreliable narration, and to your point, the way the internet is unreliable. Could you speak about how you developed that as a theme in the film?
Kennebeck: At some point I showed the film to one of my mentors, Wim Wenders, and his response was that this is a film about the truth. That is for us and our small independent film team, that was really our guiding principle. In trying to find and uncover the truth. My team and I went into this investigation not knowing the outcome of it. For me, when I see this film, it really mirrors our journey of investigation and what we were able to uncover along the way. It’s very intentionally structured that way. I think it was crucial to disclose to the audience the journey that we have been on in trying to find the truth. For me, this is a film that deals with the nature of truth, with personal truths and personal memories. When you see the contradictions of the different interview partners and how they interpret certain events and what they believe is the truth of the story, it does show the different positions and the conflicting beliefs. Multiple people in the film and in the interviews were discussing the value of truth for themselves and for their own stories, so it was a guiding line throughout the film.
MF: Can you speak about the collaboration process between you and your crew?
Kennebeck: I have been collaborating with my core team members for a really long time. My director of photography Torsten Lapp, he and I have worked together for over 15 years. My producer Ines Hoffman Kannam, the editor Maxine Goedicke, and the composer Insa Rudolph, I actually tie them in from the very beginning when I first conceive of a story. When I have an idea that I think could be a film, I start speaking to them about the idea and the approach I want to take. I usually have a sort of sense of the style of the film, which is informed by the story and the visual representation I think will be the core of the story. There’s a process of us developing the style and the narrative together. With this film in particular, it was very important to me to have such a tight-knit independent film team because we all had different positions and interpretations of the story. A lot of what we were able to uncover and find in terms of evidence of different research directions was coming through our discussion and conversations about the film and what the story would represent. This creative collaboration has been crucial. Also, because I do national security investigations, and I work with whistleblowers and so it is really important for me to have a team that I can really trust. That is also willing to investigate and work on these types of stories and who know how to use encryption and do data protection.
MF: Can you describe your research process?
Kennebeck: Usually my producing partner and I think about what requests take the longest. For example, Freedom of Information requests can take months or even years, especially if the government does not want to reveal certain information. With the other film I released this year, ‘United States vs. Reality Winner’, we actually filed a lawsuit against the FBI. These types of government requests have to be done very early in the process because we have to expect them to take years. I do a lot of field research. So with ‘Enemies of the State,’ Ines Hoffman Kanna and I went to Nashville and were traveling around talking to people in person. That did make a substantial difference, we believe, in getting the investigator and the prosecutor to appear in front of the camera and actually give on-camera interviews, which they had not done before. That was a months-long process of us meeting people in person. Then of course we did research on the phone as well, which led to some people who we were trying to talk to, the moment they heard the name Matt DeHart they hung up the phone on us. We did have a lot of research blocks along the way, especially with the government and the FBI. You have to be very cautious in interpreting these denials because in this film what I think is crucial is it is really a story into finding the truth, and finding confirmable information, and discussing all of these layers and how information can perpetuate over the internet. So I didn’t want to interpret or speculate myself and really present information we could confirm. There is an element of ambiguity that we will not be able to resolve at this point. That is part of the story for me, I think, that some of the stories that we deal with today have ambiguity, and they have secrets. Some people are uncomfortable with it. I think it’s important not to fill the gaps with speculation.
MF: What do you think is so appealing about stories that are ambiguous? I’m in the camp of finding them fascinating.
Kennebeck: I’m glad you do because I do as well. I’ve been thinking along the process while we were investigating the story, and also there’s this whole part in the film that shows the media coverage and how a certain narrative was spreading over social media and into publications worldwide. I’ve been thinking so much about the making of conspiracy theories, but also of course real conspiracies that have happened and government misconduct and how our landscape now, we are dealing with a problem of false narratives and false conspiracy theories. One of the things I think leads to people sharing unconfirmed narratives is a discomfort with ambiguity and a discomfort with not knowing. What I really want people to take away from this film is that one thing is to go into every research, as journalists or filmmakers, to go in open-minded. Really be open to changing the direction of the research, and incorporating contradictory statements and evidence. For the audience, to really train ourselves to be critical thinkers. To continue to probe and investigate and change our interpretations of events or stories when new information comes up. I’m sure there are some people who will come out of it, and they will want to have a clear answer or result of this investigation, but the truth is there is still ambiguity and there are still secrets and for me, that says more than a speculation.
MF: Can you recommend another film directed by a woman, whether it inspired you as a filmmaker or just because you think it’s a cool movie?
Kennebeck: I do think it’s important to highlight other films by women. I think it really matters who are the storyteller. Gender, gender identity, different identities, class, experience. I think all of those matter in terms of what stories we identify. What interview partners we find for our stories. And of course our perspectives. Especially in investigative journalism and my field of national security and whistleblower reporting, it’s certainly a field where I think there should be more diversity in whom the storytellers are. There are just a lot of men in that particular area. One recent documentary I’m thinking of is ‘The Tiniest Place (El lugar más pequeño)’ by Tatiana Huezo. It’s a deeply moving and poetic documentary film about the residents of Cinquera, a remote village in El Salvador, who have lived through a brutal civil war. The film explores and captures the survivors’ memory, grief, trauma, and resilience through their lives, stories, and testimonies. It’s an extraordinary film.
The Tiniest Place (El lugar más pequeño) - directed by Tatiana Huezo
Born in El Salvador, filmmaker Tatiana Huezo immigrated to Mexico when she was four years old. She graduated from the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica and in 2004 completed a master's degree in creative documentary at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Her first film, 2011’s ‘The Tiniest Place (El lugar más pequeño)’ told the story of a small village that was totally destroyed in the Salvadoran Civil War. It played in festivals around the world and won the Best Documentary Feature award at the 54th Ariel Awards from the Mexican Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences. Her most recent film ‘Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de fuego)’ won a Special Mention in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.